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Hens and Chicks

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Picture of hen-and-chickens flowers.

Although known for their foliage, hens and chicks do flower!

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Hens and Chicks:

Plant taxonomy classifies hens and chicks plants as Sempervivum tectorum. "Hens and chicks" is the plural form.

Plant Type:

Hens and chicks are succulent evergreen perennials.

Characteristics of Hens and Chicks:

Hens and chicks plants are mat-forming succulents that produce clusters of rosettes. The parent rosettes are the "hens," and the smaller rosettes that spring from them are the "chicks" or "chickens." This low-growing (4") perennial will quickly spread to 2' or more in width. Although grown for its foliage, hens and chicks do flower (see picture), on a tall (1') flower stalk. The foliage of hens and chicks plants can be red, green or some mixture thereof.

Planting Zones for Hens and Chicks:

Hens and chicks can be grown in planting zones 3-11.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Hens and Chicks:

Grow hens and chicks plants in full sun to partial shade and in well-drained soil. In the South, hens and chicks can profit from partial shade; but the requirement for well-drained soil is a must in any zone!

Care for Hens and Chicks:

The "hens" will die after flowering, but by that time they will have produced numerous "chicks" or "chickens" to take their place. To propagate, simply split off the chickens from the parent plant and transplant them. Providing contact with the soil should be sufficient for transplanting, since hens and chicks root readily.

Uses in Landscaping:

As drought-tolerant succulents, hens and chicks plants are rock-garden perennials par excellence. My tutorial on how to build rock gardens illustrates how nicely hens and chicks complement other rock-garden components. Hens and chicks plants are also deer-resistant.

Alternate Spelling for the Common Name:

People frequently employ a hyphenated spelling for the common name. Thus Sempervivum tectorum is also commonly referred to as "hen-and-chicks," "hens-and-chickens" and variants thereof.

Origin of the Latin Name for Hens and Chicks:

While the origin of the common names, "hens and chicks" or "hens and chickens" is apparent from the foregoing, the reader may be curious about the origin of the plant's Latin name, Sempervivum tectorum.

The word for the genus, Sempervivum, is Latin for "always live," i.e., evergreen. So far, so good. But when you discover that the word for the species, tectorum, means "on roofs" in Latin, you may start scratching your head. What does this evergreen perennial have to do with roofs?

Well, it turns out that hens and chicks, which are indigenous to Europe, were traditionally planted in thatched roofs. European folklore held that they were supposed to provide protection against lightning-induced fires, due to the plants' association with two gods of lightning: Thor and Zeus (Jupiter). In this case, folklore is justified, in the sense that succulents such as hens and chicks are fire-resistant and would perhaps slow down the spread of fire through thatch.

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